Education

Insights about college job interviews from sorority recruitment (opinion)

As an undergraduate, I was a recruitment chair at a National Panhellenic Conference sorority. After I obtained my Ph.D., I was a humanities job candidate, and now, as a professor, I am frequently a search committee member. And I’ve been struck by the similarities in the recruitment processes of NPC Greek-letter organizations and academic institutions.

Both rushing a sorority and going on the job market are rhetorical acts—what we’re pitching is ourselves. Perhaps surprisingly, however, for all its flaws, sorority recruitment is more forthright about that fact than academics are with job searches. For instance, in my many years of listening to job market advice, I rarely, if ever, heard anyone mention the importance of making small talk.

You’re probably thinking that the stakes involved in obtaining an academic position are much higher, and the result much more important, than securing a relatively trivial sorority bid. But for an 18-year-old as sold on the sorority system as most academics are about higher education, the decision can feel as monumental—that it’s a choice that will significantly impact one’s future path.

While some colleges and universities may be working to overhaul or abolish Greek-letter organizations or to reimagine graduate education career development, most are tackling systemic issues in the recruitment processes at such a glacial pace that they have a long way to go. In the meantime, acknowledging the performativity of recruitment can help candidates take a bit more control over the process now. As a modest Midwesterner who eschewed all things showy, I got cut from sorority recruitment the first time around. I landed my dream academic job 20 years ago because the institution’s top choice turned down the position. So it took me a while in both cases to catch the drift. But I’ve since realized that sorority recruitment has crucial lessons for job market recruitment—if academics don’t pretend they’re above the fray of their similarly transactional natures.

Class and race exclusivity often permeate the process. White sororities have long been called out for their racist and classist practices. Academe has been, too, as much as some people still try to pretend the system isn’t skewed toward norms maintained by those who are white and relatively affluent. And for both sororities and higher education institutions, the touchstone notion of fit exacerbates the issues.

For example, during my time in a sorority, we were taught etiquette that we practiced at formal dinners. And since then, where have I most needed to use what I learned? During the often classist academic job recruitment process. At one of my dinners as a job candidate—at a posh venue, of course—I was told all about the award-winning art museums in the area. What I wanted to know instead was “Where is the closest Target?” I didn’t ask, as I was too busy trying to pass as highbrow.

The next day, after an even more awkward art museum visit with a faculty member whose profile couldn’t have been less like mine, I ordered the chicken-fried steak in the faculty lounge while everyone else chose the salad bar. It felt like a tiny moment of resistance (plus, I was hungry).

Since then, I’ve realized much more what Jennifer M. Goméz describes so well: you shouldn’t hide how your own lived experiences are a benefit and you can make a distinct contribution, whether to a sorority or an employer. If you don’t feel welcome or affirmed that this can be so, then it’s time to consider other opportunities. It is a mutual selection process. Candidates are made to feel they don’t have that option in this market. But you do.

It’s whom you know—but not as much as you might think. It would be nice if you could simply showcase your strengths to secure a job, terrible market notwithstanding. But to pretend connections don’t matter or that only one kind of connection—a VIP—is what matters most is too narrow a viewpoint.

During sorority recruitment, alumna fill out recommendations for candidates that focus on academics, leadership and service achievements. Any alum can write a letter as a member vouching for the potential of the person rushing, even if they aren’t very well acquainted with them or have much valuable to say. In that same vein, too many times, I’ve seen grad students erroneously think they should ask someone who is a big name to write a recommendation, even though they don’t know them very well or they may be a lackluster letter writer.

That’s not to say, however, that you shouldn’t still be strategic seeking recommendations. But from whom? Consider people you or your adviser know who can best describe your fabulousness. More important, how can they help you shape a profile that stands out? When I advise grad students, we brainstorm the seemingly insignificant contributions they’ve made—volunteering on an assessment committee, for example—that specific people we know can amplify in recommendations to potential employers. Identifying such connections allows you to conduct more than performative networking and is an opportunity for colleagues who’ve had particular positive experiences with you to share details about those experiences.

Be interested as well as interesting. In sorority recruitment, potential new members know they need to shine. Being a wallflower isn’t the vibe to convey during an intensely social, multiday recruitment experience centered on conversation—as manufactured as those conversations might be. The same goes for us as we embark on job interviews and campus visits. The difference is we don’t acknowledge that we should play to those skills, or other people frame them as beside the point.

So much small talk and “casual” conversation are a part of the job recruitment process—those snatches of time riding in a car together to and from the airport or a restaurant. While you may know not to dismiss such moments as simply downtime, that doesn’t mean you have to pretend to be something you aren’t. Instead, use it as an opportunity to highlight what you can bring.

That means being attentive to the process and doing your part to keep the conversation going. I made the naïve mistake during my first sorority recruitment process of thinking that the members would ask me what they wanted to know, interviewer to interviewee. So I just sat quietly rather than asking them about themselves and the sorority. But I’ve learned that, even though you’re the interviewee, such moments are a great chance to wonder aloud about the culture of a place and those who are in it.

In short: it’s not all about you, even though you’re the one being interviewed. Being interested is a way of being interesting. And being engaging doesn’t mean you’re not a serious candidate.

Appearances matter. Academics often roll their eyes at the accoutrements of sorority recruitment—the matching Lilly Pulitzer dresses, Bid Day T-shirts and so forth. But quite similarly, before I went out on the job market, I received all kinds of unsolicited advice to conform to expectations regarding attire. I’d be told to wear a neutral suit, but not so neutral there was no pizzazz (maybe add a scarf). In the next moment, someone else would counsel me that what I wore was moot. I’ve had grad students ask me if they should wear their hair up or down. More recently, I’ve had lengthy discussions about how to best set the stage with Zoom backgrounds.

Again, awareness is key. It’s a job interview, and we certainly aren’t in the only industry that conforms to certain conventions, even though we’re in one that likes to think we don’t pay attention to such superficial matters. So, yes, dress the part of a professional while not conforming so much that you lose your sense of self that enables you to buoy your confidence—professional or otherwise. Your appearance matters in a process that is performative, and you shouldn’t ignore that.

Those are just a few relevant lessons I’ve learned from my sorority recruitment days. Ultimately, what I’ve found to be most helpful to me and the grad students on the job market whom I advise is to focus on what you can control instead of feeling desperate about the market or any one job and to take the process less seriously by acknowledging the absurdities. You want to be ready to adjust your expectations but not disregard your basic interests, needs and goals. You don’t want to get into the “perfect” sorority house or take the “perfect” job only to find that you’ve contorted yourself so much to become what you think the system demands that you’re miserable. You can both criticize and resist while still bringing a bit of levity to the process to make it more bearable.

Meanwhile, we shouldn’t mock sorority recruitment, as I hear many academics do every year (and how easy a target are young women?), viewing our efforts on the job market as more noble. We’re participating in a process more similar than we may care to admit. If only we could celebrate grandly, as they do on Bid Day, with T-shirts and accolades from our new department when we secure the position we’ve worked so hard to obtain.

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